Sermon: The Temptation of Worship

I invite you to open your Bibles with me to Matthew 4, beginning in verse 8. Matthew 4, beginning in verse 8. Matthew is in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew 4, beginning in verse 8. This morning we will hear the third and final temptation of Jesus. But before we do, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule,

Your Holy Spirit our teacher,

and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

Then the devil left him and angels came and attended him.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Three temptations. At the last, two paths lay before Jesus. The path upward and the path downward. The devil has been leading Jesus up and up and up. The first temptation was in the wilderness. At the second, Jesus was brought up to the highest place in the temple. Now, he is brought to a very high mountain. Up, up, up, the devil brings him. The higher he goes the greater the stakes – first ‘feed yourself,’ then ‘test God’, and now ‘worship me.’

Two paths – up, up, up with the devil or down, down, down with the Spirit. By the Spirit, the Son came down into the womb of a Jewish virgin. Christ Jesus, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. When Jesus had grown, the Spirit brought him down the banks of the Jordan, then down into the waters in baptism. Down, down, down. And Jesus knew, I believe, from the very beginning where this downward path of the Spirit would lead – And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!

The downward path – the Spirit-led path – was a difficult road, a road marked with suffering, sacrifice, and eventually death. The devil leads him up, up, up – promising that life will be good and easy and comfortable, while the Spirit leads him down, down, down – into a way of humility and sacrifice, a path with great cost.

These are the two paths laid before Jesus in this temptation. As Jesus himself will say it,  Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

After Jesus refuses to throw himself off the top of the temple and test God, Satan makes one last play. He brings Jesus to a very high mountain, where Jesus can see lands and kingdoms far and wide. He can see their beauty, their power, their glory. And the devil promises it all to Jesus. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Just one bend of the knee and Jesus will have everything. Satan offers kingdoms and country, blood and soul, in exchange for worship. The same is true today. But for many of us, the temptation to bow our knees to would-be gods is much more subtle. Listen to these words from the novelist David Foster Wallace. He was an unbeliever, but I think he rightly captures the power and pervasiveness of worship:

“in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”

David Foster Wallace, as an unbeliever, wrongly thinks its doesn’t matter which god you worship, but he rightly sees that false worship is connected to false promises, that will ultimately destroy us. If we build our lives, if we seek identity and significance, from anything other than God, it will eat you alive. Whatever you worship, whatever you value most, you will sacrifice anything to get it. And David Foster Wallace names that unless what you worship is the truth, it will destroy you.

But they all promise something. That is what makes the temptation real. On the surface, the invitation for Jesus to bow down and worship Satan is absurd. There is no way Jesus would do it, but the temptation is real. What makes it real is the promise connected with the compromise. Satan doesn’t just say, ‘Hey, worship me,’ but, ‘look at what I will give you, look at how easy it will be if you worship me (unlike worshipping God – hint, hint), why don’t you just worship me?’

Satan offers a shortcut to the kingdom for Jesus. He knows that Jesus came to establish the kingdom of God and Satan offers Jesus an escape. He offers him a way to establish the kingdom of God without having to go to the cross. He offers Jesus a way to accomplish the goal of his mission without going through the way God has ordained it to be accomplished. Satan offers him the world without toil and tears and pain and death on the condition that he would worship him.

Satan offers Jesus ‘the good life’ if he will bow down and worship him.

Two paths lay before Jesus. Up, up, up or down, down, down. What makes the temptation to worship Satan real, I believe, is that both Satan and Jesus know where the downward road will lead. It is as if Satan is saying, ’Don’t you know how hard this road will be? How much sacrifice? How much it will cost you to follow God? Why don’t you just take the wide road?’
This is the temptation we face – to assume that discipleship should be easy, that it will never put us in conflict with others, or create discomfort in our souls, that it will never keep us up at night. We assume that if the gospel is good news, then it will feel good all the time, but the road is hard and narrow. It is the road of sacrifice, of humility, of loving enemies and turning the other cheek. Jesus had the easy path before him – the compromising path, the one that promised comfort and ease, the promised quick and easy power – but one that led to destruction. Instead, Jesus took the narrow road, the road of humble obedience to God, the road of suffering, but the road, Jesus tells us, that leads to life.

The right road is not always the easy or comfortable road. Some of you have had your marriages hang by a thread and know that easier road, the possibly less painful road would have been to walk away, but you didn’t. Some of you know the kind of pain that only parenting can bring – the hard road of loving your children when their make you proud and when their decisions leave your guts lying on the floor. The right road is not always the easy or comfortable road.

But the easy road is the road often taken. We see half of marriages end in divorce, see friendships abandoned and children neglected, we see men take up torches in anger and march through the streets chanting for a pure, white america. We see people take the easy road, the road that promises power and success, that validates our hurts and wants. It doesn’t always look like Satan coming up and saying ‘follow me,’ but the slow, steady compromise of Christian conviction for the sake of comfort and acceptance.

The right road is not always the easy or comfortable road.

Following Jesus, believing the gospel, won’t immediately make your life better. In fact, it might get worse before it gets better. There are internal struggles. We each have many sinful habits, disordered loves, and recurring sins that will need to be dealt with. It hurts and is never done this side of Christ’s return. Being a Christian doesn’t feel good all the time. But more important than whether it feels good all the time is whether it is true, whether the path is truly good, even when the way is hard, whether this narrow, hard road leads to life and the wide, easy road to destruction.

To take that wide road is to glorify Satan. Satan doesn’t come up to many of us and say, “Worship me.” Instead, we are promised an easy path of discipleship, a more comfortable way of following God, instead of the hard way that puts us in conflict.

“All this I will give,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

Jesus chose to worship God and serve him only. He chose the narrow road, knowing where it would lead. He chose to place all his trust, all his life, in the hands of his heavenly Father, when he knew the path ahead would go down, down, down – even to death on a cross.

At Jesus’ rebuke, Satan left him. Jesus was victorious. For now. But Satan returned with this temptation again on Jesus’ road to Jerusalem as he headed to the cross. Listen to this:

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?

The temptation came again – to have the kingdom without the cross. To be the righteous Son of David, but not the Suffering Servant. To gain the world without toil and tears and pain and death. But again, Jesus says ‘No.’ He walks the way of the cross, the downward path of humility and suffering that leads to salvation. And he says something significant. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” It is not just Jesus whose life will have a cross-like shape to it. Those who belong to him, who trust in his finished work of salvation on the cross, will follow him in a life that is faint echo of Jesus. Christians should expect cross-shaped lives, lives that move downward in humility and then end in everlasting life.

As we close our journey through the this temptation of Christ, I want to briefly notice two aspects of these temptations for us. First, Jesus resists temptation using resources common to all of us. Jesus didn’t pull up some divine power, but pulled out the Bible. Jesus used the word of God to resist the temptations of the devil. It wasn’t some sort of magic words, but because Jesus had hidden the word of God in his heart, the Spirit led him to trust in the Word of God and trust in the promises of God contained there and, in doing so, resist temptation. The Word of God was Jesus’ weapon against temptation and it should be ours as well.

Second, our temptations are not like Christ’s. Even when we face similar challenges or similar temptations, they are not the same. Why? Because Jesus has already fought and defeated Satan for us. When we face the temptations of life – the temptations to satisfy our immediate hungers, to mistrust and test God, to choose the easy path and false worship – we know that Jesus has already conquered the devil for us. We appeal to his strength, “O Christ, who has overcome the devil, help me!” we cry and we know the strength of the one who answers. Our temptations are different, because we face a defeated devil in the company of a conquering Christ. We face a defeated devil – one who lost the battle with Christ again and again and whose power was ultimately undone on the cross of Christ – we face a defeated devil in the company of the conquering Christ – we do not face temptation alone, but in the company of Christ, who conquered sin, death, and the devil for us. As Martin Luther wrote in one of my favorite hymns:

And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers,
No thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours
Through Him who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

     In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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